My Trans Awakening: At 66 –

I came out after a lifetime in the closet. Now, I have found a community of people like me in Calgary’s Rainbow Elders.

BY Abby Tickell Photography by Allison Seto

May 6, 2024

I was 10 years old the first time I came out as transgender. It was 1964 and I told my parents that she was a girl. They didn’t know how to react. At that time, the concept of “transgender” was not common and transsexuality, as it was known then, was considered a perversion and sexual deviation. My father’s reaction was to continue to embarrass me for who he was: a kind child who cried easily. So I never mentioned it to them again. I learned to walk like a child, talk like a child, and even think like a child. I wasn’t very good at it when I was younger, but I got better at it as the years went by.

When I was in my early 20s, I moved from Vancouver to Calgary, where I worked in IT. I met my first wife in 1977 and we eventually had three children together. We divorced when they were still children, so I was a single mother for many years before I met my second wife. After my children and stepdaughter moved, my wife and I went from town to town in southern Alberta. In 2017, I retired and we both ended up in Strathmore, a community 40 minutes east of Calgary.

All those years, I never dared look up the word “transgender” online. I was afraid that someone would find it in my search history and I would be found out. I never believed it was possible to come out. But as life progressed and I began to see the end of the road, I wondered if I could really be the person I really am. I imagined myself on my deathbed, still in the closet, thinking I had never lived. That was heartbreaking.

In the spring of 2021, I felt alone and depressed. My world revolved around my wife: she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis shortly after we were married, and I had focused on helping her get healthy. I was happy to support her; she gave me purpose and served as a welcome distraction. I spent my days playing guitar alone in my basement, quietly, so no one could hear me. She lived like a man: he had a beard, short hair and practiced lifting weights. She was so into the closet that she had never done my makeup or tried on women’s clothes in private. Then one day, I typed “transgender” into the Facebook search bar. I was surprised to discover that there were so many Facebook groups for trans people online; some had more than 100,000 members. People were talking about undergoing hormone replacement therapy, or HRT; undergo gender affirmation surgery; and come out to their families. I was amazed. I had no idea these things were possible.

As soon as I discovered that so many trans people had come out, I realized I couldn’t stay there anymore. At the age of 66, I told my wife. We had been married for about 18 years and she had no idea I was trans; She had hidden it so well. The news was the beginning of a divorce in slow motion. But for me, Telling him the truth took a weight off my shoulders. It took enormous energy to spend my entire life acting. The day I told him, it was like the sun was shining for the first time.

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Four days later, I posted in one of the trans Facebook groups I joined. I wrote about how happy I was to be out and posted a photo of myself. The post garnered more than 500 likes. Suddenly, trans people from all over the world were telling me about their own coming out experiences. It meant a lot to know that so many people were happy for me.

A few months later, I told my children and my stepdaughter. They didn’t see it coming, but they were very supportive. My grandchildren, in particular, have been great. They used to call me “Grandpa” and one day I told them: “I would like you to call me Grandpa now.” Thus, they changed without missing a beat. By then, my wife had also accepted that she couldn’t change my transness and she decided to help me move on. She gave me tips on how to paint my nails, adopt a skincare routine, and style my clothes. I appreciated her help.

I started seeing a therapist, who told me about Skipping Stone, a Calgary-based nonprofit that supports trans people in Alberta and hosts peer-to-peer support groups over Zoom. I joined one for transfeminine people over 50. Those first meetings were a shock, because I had never met a trans person before. There was a lot to process. Most of the members had been away for years and had all the answers to my questions. We talked about how to access hormone replacement therapy, how to do your hair and makeup, and how to present yourself in a feminine way. Suddenly, I had trans friends.

About six months after coming out, my wife and I finalized our divorce. We sold our house in Strathmore and moved to separate apartments in Calgary. After we broke up, I felt much freer to express my gender identity. I would put on a blouse, a skirt, jewelry and makeup, and dance around the room in a way I had never moved before: like a girl. It filled me with joy. I also changed my name and the gender marker on my ID and met as many people as I could through Stepping Stone.

In September 2022 I attended a picnic with the Zoom group. We met in the parking lot, all dressed for a day at the park. There were some people near us who were not part of our group. The funny thing was that none of them paid much attention to us. At that time we were like everyone else. That was a powerful lesson: it inspired us to meet up more often, and I realized that we could be exactly who we were in public and we probably wouldn’t get dirty looks or comments. We started going out to lunch, chatting about our transitions and our lives. We could be ourselves with each other.

A friend had mentioned Rainbow Elders Calgary, a volunteer-run organization that supports local LGBTQ+ seniors. I started following the group on social media, and eventually one of their upcoming events caught my eye: another picnic in the park. It was a spectacular spring day and the park was full of families enjoying the sun. I saw a Pride flag in the air and headed toward a small group of seniors. We started chatting right away. Some people threw a baseball, while others played ring toss. I loved the idea of ​​us being here, queer and not leaving. Queer people, especially trans people of my generation, have hidden a lot in our lives. It was nice to find a group that was in the community.

Since the picnic, my involvement with Rainbow Elders has become the center of my life. The group is surprisingly inclusive. There are lesbians, gay men, trans people, practically the entire rainbow. Rainbow Elders participates in LGBTQ+ protests and advocates for queer seniors in nursing homes by hosting seminars for staff and residents. She also hosts monthly social events with activities like swimming and dancing and holds get-togethers where we take turns sharing our stories. I love the opportunity to talk to people my age who have similar experiences.

Recently, I led a birding event at the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary in the heart of the city. I invited a friend of mine who brought along some other younger trans men, as well as a group of Rainbow Elders. It was a cold and windy day, but we saw some great birds and shared some good conversation. Halfway through the event, one of the young men told me that he hadn’t left his apartment much and that he was excited to be outside, soaking up the sun and fresh air. He said it meant a lot to talk to real people, rather than texting or talking on Zoom. Afterwards we went to lunch at a cafeteria. The friend I invited over later told me that the sandwich he ate there was the first decent meal he had had in a long time. It was just a birding event, but it helped people in a way I didn’t expect.

After coming out, you start to change on a large scale. Everything can change: who your friends are, who you can associate with, how society views you. Many Rainbow Elders also came out later in life and understand what it’s like to have played another gender role for decades and the difficulty of trying to shake that off. In our generation, there are many, many people who have gone through trauma, especially at the hands of our baby boomer parents and an intolerant society. Each Rainbow Elder has their own story, but we all share a similar vulnerability.

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One of the group’s goals is to support queer youth in the city. That’s why we often visit LGBTQ+ organizations at local schools and universities to talk to (and, more importantly, listen to) the people there. I recently met with a group of LGBTQ+ students at Mount Royal University. It was beautiful to see so many young people out and proud. Our stories as older people are radically different from what young people are going through now. We talked to young people about the loss of many queer and trans people from older generations to the AIDS epidemic. And they teach us about different gender paradigms, like the term “non-binary,” which was not a common label in my generation. Kids are coming out earlier: in elementary school, high school, and college. Many of them have supportive parents, which was almost unheard of in my generation. But in some ways, it’s also harder for young people to come out. When I came out at age 66, I was financially independent and had children and grandchildren. Many young people do not have that financial and social support. In Alberta, trans youth are also grappling with planned provincial policy changes that would limit their access to gender-affirming health care and require parental consent if students want to change their name or pronouns at school. I see queer and trans kids as trailblazers, and I’m glad that we, as Rainbow Elders, are working to support them, listen to their concerns, and advocate against the government’s anti-trans policies.

I’ve been out for three years and at this point my transition is pretty much complete. I am profoundly happier than before coming out. I used to be a quiet person who rarely smiled and barely had any friends. Now, I wake up every day looking forward to what lies ahead. I’ve become a social butterfly: I want to meet people every day and I’m always looking for the next Rainbow Elders event to attend. I’m finally the person I always was.

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